Candidates for Job of World’s Top Diplomat Face Questions

A United Nations security officer stands guard outside the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, December 10, 2015. Geneva officials said on Thursday that they had raised the level of alert and were looking for suspects by identified by Swiss federal authorities. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy
 United Nations security officers stand guard outside the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Dec. 10, 2015. (Reuters/Pierre Albouy)

Nine candidates seeking to become the world’s top diplomat answered a total of about 800 questions over the past three days from ambassadors and advocacy groups in the first move in the U.N.’s 70-year history to open up the usually secret selection of the next secretary-general.

General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft, who presided over the question-and-answer sessions, said he was “very inspired” that in addition to almost all 193 U.N. member states taking part, 227,000 people from 209 countries and territories watched some of the webcast.

“It has already made a difference,” he told reporters late Thursday. “We have established a new standard of transparency and inclusivity for the selection of the secretary-general.”

According to the U.N. Charter, the secretary-general is chosen by the 193-member General Assembly on the recommendation of the 15-member Security Council.

Lykketoft has said the question-and-answer sessions could be “a potential game-changer” if many countries support one candidate, which would put pressure on the Security Council not to choose someone else.

It’s too early to say if that will happen, since more candidates are expected to throw their hats in the ring. Lykketoft encouraged those interested to “come forward quickly.”

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said questioning and hearing from every candidate “will increase the quality of the decision-making in the Security Council when the time comes, and I think it will raise the bar in terms of the overall quality of the field.”

Other Council members were more cautious about the impact of the sessions. Angola’s U.N. Ambassador Ismael Gaspar Martins said they “could offer the Council a first view of who the potential candidates really are” and help them “choose properly.”

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said “some people seem to be excited” but he clearly wasn’t. “I think it might be useful. We’ll see,” he said, declaring diplomatically that he has a “very good impression of all candidates.”

By tradition, the job of secretary-general has rotated among regions and Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe have all held the top U.N. post. East European nations, including Russia, argue that they have never had a secretary-general and it is their turn. There has also never been a woman secretary-general and a group of 56 nations are campaigning for the first female U.N. chief.

Srgjan Kerim, a former Macedonian foreign minister and ex-General Assembly president, stressed the importance of following the unwritten rule of rotation, saying Thursday it maintains “mutual trust” and promotes needed unity at a time [when] the world is facing many crises.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who heads the U.N. Development Program, said the U.N. needs “a proven leader who is pragmatic and effective” — and she has demonstrated those qualities. As one of four women in the race, she stressed that “all my life I have fought for gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

Former Serbian foreign minister and General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic, who was only nominated by his government on Monday, presented General Assembly members with an 81-page platform containing 53 specific commitments on issues from stabilizing countries in the Mideast and North Africa to prioritizing genocide prevention.

Lykketoft said a common thread among all the candidates was that the U.N. has taken some great steps forward with new development goals, a climate agreement and maybe progress in Iran and a start in Syria. But there was also widespread agreement on the need for the U.N. to undertake “pro-active intervention to avoid conflicts and contain conflicts,” adopt a stronger network to monitor human rights violations, and reform the U.N. bureaucracy, he said.

Former Slovenian president Danilo Turk said “the secretary-general is neither secretary nor general” but “a servant of the organization” who must be available 24 hours a day. As U.N. chief, he said he would urgently review global crises, launch a program to implement the new U.N. goals for 2030, and carry out recruitment and budget reforms.

The other candidates are Montenegro’s Foreign Minister Igor Luksic; former Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pucic; UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova from Bulgaria; former Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman and former U.N. refugee chief and ex-Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres.